The bridge.

August 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

I spent last week in the woods with eleven alumni and instructors from the National Outdoor Leadership School. We were on a service trip and our assignment was to repair the suspension bridge where the Northville-Placid Trail crosses Moose Creek.

 

We started on Sunday morning when we were divided into cook groups. I was teamed with Ed and Haley, two very experienced and energetic backpackers. Our group clicked immediately and worked well together all week. I usually made breakfast and helped with the cleanup for the rest of the meals. They cooked delicious dinners and made sure we had enough to eat for lunch. When it started to rain hard one evening, Ed found the leaks in the tent and we rearranged our sleeping bags to keep dry. During a hike along the Cold River on Wednesday, Haley entertained us with riddles and stories about her previous back packing trips.

The original plan had been to replace only the decking of the suspension bridge. Once the old boards were removed the plan evolved into replacing the stringers that supported the deck boards and also rebuilding the ramp leading to the bridge from the northern shore. We also improved the nearby trails by cutting down brush and installing new fence posts to replace the ones that had been damaged by bears.

The work was hard. The lumber needed for the project had been dropped by a helicopter upstream of the bridge and I spent most of the first two days carrying it to where it was needed, sometimes wading across the creek with a board balanced on my shoulders. Others from the group removed the old decking and sawed the large 2 by 6 inch boards into three-foot lengths for the deck. Still others fabricated and installed the new stringers, posts and braces needed to support the deck. Because we were in a wilderness area chain saws were not permitted and all of the cutting was done with hand saws.

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We broke camp before sunrise on Saturday and crossed the bridge for the last time just as the dawn was breaking.

Finishing the Dix

July 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

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I have hiked in the Dix Mountain Wilderness twice before but managed to climb only three of the five high peaks located there.

On the first trip the plan had been to climb all five, starting at Grace and ending at Dix. Our group was overconfident and underprepared and we turned back after reaching Grace too late in the day to try for the others.

Last fall, I backpacked over Dix Mountain but could not find the herd path leading from the Beck-horn to Hough Peak and South Dix. The next day we climbed Macomb but decided not to push on to South Dix and Hough.

Today, my nephew Josh and I reached the two peaks I had left behind twice before.

We began our hike from the Elk Lake trail head at 7:00 AM. We reached the herd path that follows the Lillian Brook at 8:21 and found the trail to the summit to be in very good condition making for an easy climb. We reached Hough Peak at 10:30, backtracked to South Dix and finished the hike at 2:30 PM.

These two bring my total to 28.

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Several months ago my nephew Josh texted me to ask whether he could spend his vacation hiking in the Adirondacks. We agreed on a date and convinced my nephew Alex to bring some friends and join us.

Josh and I arrived on Saturday and our plan was to wake early Sunday and climb the three peaks that make up the Seward Mountain Range. The weather report indicated that there was a small chance of rain and we thought that at worst it would rain in the morning before clearing later in the day.

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We left Lake Placid at 6:00 AM and started the hike at 7:00, but at the wrong trail head. We recognized the mistake after about a mile and turned back, found the right parking lot and started for Mount Donaldson at 8:00 AM.

There are three mountains in the range. The northern most is named for William Henry Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. The middle mountain is named for Alfred Lee Donaldson who wrote a history of the Adirondacks and the southern peak is named for Ebenezer Emmons who, while serving as the state geologist, was part of the expedition that made the first ascent of Mt Marcy in 1837.

We reached the herd path to Donaldson at about 10 and reached the top of Donaldson at 12:30. We spent the next two hours hiking to the summits of Mt. Emmons and Seward Mountain before returning Donaldson and backtracking to the trailhead.

Our hopes for clearing weather never came to pass and we spent the day hiking in a constant drizzle and had to pour water from our boots after the last stream crossing. We finished the hike just before 6.

Alex and his friends Nate, Kyle and Collin were waiting for us at the house when we returned to Lake Placid.

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The next morning we kayaked and canoed to Middle Saranac Lake repeating a trip I had taken two years ago with friends and a trip my mother took regularly when she attended Saranac High School.


On Tuesday, the six of us returned to climb Seymour Mountain, named for yet another former New York governor. We left the trailhead at 8:00 and reached the herd path to Seymour Mountain at 10:30.

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The weather was sunny and not too humid but the trail was still muddy from the rain earlier in the week. The climb was challenging with lots of steep rock scampers along the way. We reached to summit at about 1:00 PM and ate a quick lunch before heading down.

During the hike I taught them some of the lessons I learned from Oscar and Hannah last fall, like how to orient a map and use a compass and how to make water from the streams safe to drink.

My companions are strong athletes and team players. They offer a hand to help with steep climbs and they guard each other against falls during the descent through steep and wet terrain. They share their water and food and work together to find the solution when I stop along the route to challenge them to “Tell me precisely where we are on this map.”

The climb down from the summit took nearly as long as the climb up and we were already very tired when we rejoined the Ward Brook trail to start the four mile hike back to the trailhead. I kept to my regular pace but they were anxious to be off the trail and away from the mosquitos that joined us as we passed by Blueberry Pond. I am not concerned. They have proven that they can find themselves in these woods and work together to solve problems and take care of each other.

I let them go and finish this journey in solitude.

 

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We bought the station wagon in 2003 and gave it to Abby last week. Today she loaded it with a bicycle, her guitar and some clothes, waved goodbye and started a cross-country road trip to Berkeley for graduate school.

Over the last thirteen years I have driven that car to hundreds of swim practices and meets and to camping trips and birthday parties with her friends. Every summer we drove it to the Adirondacks, often listening to Jim Dale read aloud the seven book story of Harry and Ron and Hermione.

When Abby went away to high school I drove it to visit her, sometimes twice a week during swimming and water polo seasons. One Christmas her present to me was five hours of music on CDs to keep me company during those long drives. When she graduated we drove it to a music festival in Tennessee and camped behind it for three very hot days and muggy nights.

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After Abby moved to Chicago for college most of my trips in the station wagon involved swimming events with new friends. I drove it to open water swims in Ocean City and New York and to Lake Placid to hike and ski with friends. It carried my bike to the Iron Man and my canoe to Cooperstown.

But of all these travels, I cherish most the memories of the times when Abby was younger and we would stop at the Knoebels amusement park on our way home from visiting my mother as her health deteriorated.

It was about halfway and Abby loved riding the two wooden roller coasters there. On nice summer days we would spend a few hours riding the Phoenix and the Twister and maybe take a swim in the large swimming pool before grabbing a quick meal and finishing the rest of the drive. It was the perfect remedy to help us feel better no matter how sad our visit had left us.

Abby is now on her way to Berkeley driving the station wagon we bought in 2003. I love the memories made in that car and I’m not sure when I’ll replace it. But when I do I’ll be sure to find my way back to Knoebels Grove to ride the roller coasters and maybe swim a while in the large pool there.

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River Redux

May 31, 2016 — 2 Comments

Three nephews, three races. That is the deal I struck with Tommy, Alex and Matt in 2014. Alex was my partner last year. This Memorial Day it’s Tommy’s turn.

Memorial Day has always been a special holiday in Sidney. My sisters, brother and I grew up marching in the annual parade in our Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms. We would start at the Prospect Hill Cemetery. From there we marched down the hill, across the railroad tracks, past a sandwich shop and along Main Street to a flagpole in front of the village Post Office for a wreath laying ceremony. After the parade we’d visit the Regatta grounds for one last day of carnival rides and food before heading back to school on Tuesday.

This Memorial Day weekend Sidney dedicated its newly finished memorial park to veterans. I didn’t make it in time for the opening ceremony but visited it with Tommy and Matt before heading to Cooperstown for the start of this year’s 70 mile endurance race.

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I spend most of my visit studying the memorial to the veterans from my high school  and learn that the American Legion Post my father belonged to was named for Charles Jacobi who was killed during the First World War and that two brothers, Kenneth and Douglas Keller, lost their lives during the Second. I cannot imagine how devastating that must have been to their parents and classmates.

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Then I read the nine names on the Vietnam plaque. Seven of these veterans grew up in a small nearby town called Sidney Center. At the time it had a population of about 500 and in a period of less than 90 days seven families received visits notifying them that their sons had been killed. I did not know them or their families but you can read about them here, and you should.

While studying the plaque I remember what it was like to grow up during that conflict. I was not yet 4 years old when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia. I was 7 when 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops began the Tet Offensive, the battle that would take the lives of the seven young men from Sidney Center.

Woodstock would take place 70 miles from the house where I grew up, during the summer before I turned 9. My friend Sandy, who lived in Sidney Center, would later wear a POW Bracelet. The war would end and Saigon would fall before I graduated and that is why, thankfully, none of my classmates’ names are on that wall.

I spend the rest of the day preparing for Monday’s race and watching Alex and his friend compete in the 15 mile sprint race. On race day we are a little behind schedule getting to the start line and in the rush I drop my sunglasses into Otsego Lake. I try to scoop them with my paddle but it doesn’t work and I watch the glasses that I was wearing when I crashed badly on my bike and when I crossed the finish line of the Lake Placid Iron Man sink slowly away.

The race was grueling, as I suppose it always is. It was hot and humid in the morning and then it rained when we had about 12 miles to go. Tommy worked hard all day and our paddling was evenly balanced and efficient. We made it through the most challenging sections of the river without any problem but flipped later after misjudging any easy rapid just south of Wells Bridge. The heat took its toll and the first half of the race went much slower than last year. We were faster below Oneonta and finished just a few minutes behind last year’s time.

I leave Sidney early Tuesday and pass through downtown. It looks much different than it did in the 1970s. I drive down the hill and across the railroad tracks and remember that when the ceasefire was declared in 1972 the sandwich shop located there changed the letters on its outdoor sign to read “Peace – Thank God” and how relieved everyone in Sidney was that the Vietnam war was coming to an end.

I stop at the newly repaired traffic light and then cross over the river on my way out of town. I am a bit sore and glad to leave the river behind me. But more than anything, I am proud that the tiny village where I grew up has built such a fitting memorial to the nine Sidney graduates who did not live to see the message on the sandwich shop sign at the bottom of the hill across the railroad tracks.

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Last week I left my iPhone in the car, picked up a backpack and spent nine days hiking through the Adirondacks with nine people I first met at an ice breaker where we were each asked to perform a favorite dance move. This is the story of that journey.

After the dance move introduction, which did not go particularly well for me, our group of ten assembled in a field and spread out all of the clothes and gear we had brought. Our instructors, Hannah and Oscar, visited with each of us and gave us suggestions on what to bring and what to leave behind.

We were then organized into three-person tent groups and four-person cooking teams. Our food ration was 1.6 pounds per person per day. The food and gear were equitably distributed and I started the trip with a pack that weighed almost 57 pounds.

My tent-mates were Adam and Aaron. Adam is an aspiring writer and Internet entrepreneur with a razor-sharp wit who really knows how to tell a good joke. Aaron, an Episcopalian minister, is one of the most thoughtful and considerate persons I have ever met. If Jesus were a backpacker I think he would be a lot like Aaron.

For our cook group, Aaron and I were paired with Jenny and Christina. Jenny recently retired after a successful business career. She is a strong hiker and a great cook and conversationalist with a very effective leadership style. Christina is a fashion designer and endurance athlete. She was the strongest hiker in our group and never stopped smiling throughout the entire trip.

On the first evening we hiked about a mile to our campsite where we were taught how to set up the tents and how to construct a “bear hang” to keep our food safely out of reach of animals looking for a late night snack.

It is dark in the Adirondacks and I learned many valuable lessons that night. First, tent site selection is critical. I awoke on the second morning a little sore after spending the night with a large root beneath my neck. Second, be sure to remember where you have left your headlamp. When it started to rain in the middle of the night and we needed to scramble to keep things dry I could not find it when it was most needed. And finally, leave a light on in the tent to help you find your way back should you take a walk into the dark woods in the middle of the night. I thought I knew where I was until I turned to walk back to the tent and realized that nothing looked at all familiar. I stumbled around a bit before finding our tent, grateful that I had not followed up my embarrassing dance performance by getting lost in the woods on the first day.

On the second morning we learned the proper way to light our camp stoves. Unfortunately this lesson came a few minutes after I had already set a large boulder on fire after failing to connect the gas canister correctly.

On the third day we were up early for our first challenging hike up and over Giant Mountain to a campsite along the shores of a small lake called the Giant Washbowl. My hiking group for the day included two members of the other cooking group, one having just finished rehabilitating from serious knee surgery. The other strained her knee during the steep descent and our group would struggle for nearly seven hours to complete the 3.9 mile hike. Along the way Hannah displayed amazing character and leadership as she motivated all of us to finish the hike.

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We rested the next day and spent it learning more skills and swimming in the nearby lake.

On our fifth day we hiked nearly seven miles, visiting the Roaring Brook waterfall before hiking along the Old Dix Trail to another lean-to.

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Yom Kippur started at sunset and Adam could not eat during the holiday. Oscar decided to keep him company and the two spent the sixth day of our journey fasting together. While Oscar and Adam were fasting I hiked to Noonmark Mountain with Hannah, Christina, Aaron, and Jenny. At the summit we made coffee and cooked ramen noodles which we ate while using a map and compass to identify the nearby mountain peaks.

After we returned to the lean-to Adam asked me to forgive him for anything he had done to hurt me over the few short days I had known him. I was deeply touched by his gesture and could not find the right words to say before turning away so that he would not see me wipe away a tear.

Each day our skills improved. We always looked out for each other while hiking, calling out when we saw loose rocks or exposed roots on the trail. Other than that I usually hiked in silence, listening as my companions shared their life stories with each other.

On Friday Oscar, Aaron, Adam, Jenny, Christina and I backpacked over Dix Mountain, pausing for lunch and pictures at the base of the Beck-horn.

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The next day I hiked with Hannah and another small group to the top of Macomb Mountain, bringing my current total of high peaks summited to twenty-two.

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We finished our trip early Sunday morning and said our goodbyes later that day.

Over the nine days we spent together we hiked just shy of thirty miles, climbed four mountains and learned how to survive and thrive in the wilderness while carrying everything we needed on our backs. We learned how to read maps and use compasses and how to transform basic food staples like beans and rice and flour into meals that would get us through the day. We ate out of plastic bowls with spoons and drank our coffee and hot chocolate out of Nalgene bottles. We found our water in the brooks and ponds we hiked past and made it safe to drink by using chemicals we carried in our pockets. I lost a little weight, grew a bit of a beard and met amazing people whose friendships I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Last week I left my iPhone in the car, picked up a backpack and spent nine days hiking through the Adirondacks with nine people I first met at an ice breaker where we were each asked to perform a favorite dance move. Along the way I witnessed exceptional displays of leadership and compassion and ate rehydrated potatoes cooked over a camp stove in a frying pan.

They were the most rewarding days I have yet to spend in the Adirondacks and the mashed potatoes really were the best I have ever had.

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Kathy, Abby and I started coming to the Adirondacks in 1997. Abby took her first sailboat and paddle boat rides on Upper Saranac Lake and learned how to paddle a canoe there as well, a skill that came in handy that time I rented a power boat and ran out of gas two miles from the marina.

We came almost every summer and always spent a part of our vacation hiking. I bought every book I could find about the trails in the Adirondacks and tried to pick out hikes suitable for Abby as she grew from a toddler into a teenager. One of the first hikes we took together was to Rocky Falls. Here’s the description of the hike in Guide To Adirondack Trails:

Rocky Falls—4.8 mile round trip. An easy walk along the start of the Indian Pass Trail to an attractive little series of waterfalls and large pool for swimming.

The weather was a bit iffy when we started our hike to the falls but we brought rain jackets just in case there was a brief shower. We followed the trail but it had been a dry summer and when we reached the brook there didn’t seem to be anything that looked like a waterfall or a pool large enough for swimming.

We turned back, not sure whether we’d actually found the falls and then it started to rain. Hard. The next two miles were miserable and the rain soon overpowered our jackets and soaked us to the skin.

To get us through it we played a game that Abby had invented. It was basically a variation of “20 Questions” with the goal to try to guess a character from the Harry Potter books. Abby was amazing at the game. I could never stump her when it was my turn to pick a character. When Abby picked, Kathy and I would often ask dozen of questions before giving up to learn of some minor wizard that was briefly mentioned in the middle of The Prisoner of Azkaban. It was a fun game and it came in handy to help pass the time on our family hikes.

Today, I decided to return to Rocky Falls on my way to Mount Marshall. I left the Adirondack Loj parking lot at 6:25 AM and reached the falls at 7:17. There was plenty of water and what I saw today matched exactly the description I first read eighteen years ago.

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The remainder of the hike to Mount Marshall was hard. Most hikers approach it from the camp sites to the southeast of the mountain. I took the longer route and approached from the northwest first climbing to Cold Brook Pass before taking the shorter but much steeper unmarked path to Marshall.

By the time I reached the summit at 11:27, the temperature had risen to 80 degrees and it was very humid. I was a bit dehydrated from the climb and regretted not stopping on the way up to top off my water bottles. It was a long, hot trip back to the parking lot but I finished the 17 miles in just under ten hours.

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There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and no need to rely on The Harry Potter Guessing Game to get me through the last few miles. I played it anyways, making a list of the characters to use on my next hike with Kathy and Abby.

Henry and Josephine.

August 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

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Today I hiked to Nye Mountain and Street Mountain, my 18th and 19th peaks on the way to 46. The hike was straight-forward and not that difficult. I left the parking lot at 8:47 AM, reached Nye at 11:00, had lunch on Street and was back to the car a few minutes after 2:00 PM.

Both peaks are covered with trees and the views are not as spectacular as the views from other nearby peaks. On the way down I catch a glimpse of Heart Lake and remember the story about how it got its name.

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According to the legend Henry Van Hovenberg left New York City in 1877 and visited the Adirondacks. He met a young woman, Josephine Scofield, and together they climbed Mount Marcy where he pledged his love to her. Looking out at the valley below them they saw a heart-shaped lake and decided that they would marry and build their home on its shores.

They returned to New York City together before Josephine left for a trip Toronto. On her way she stopped outside of Buffalo and was never seen again after taking a walk to the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

Heartbroken, Henry returned to the Adirondacks in 1878, bought the 640 acres around the lake and built a hotel where he had planned to build his home with Josephine. He renamed the lake Heart Lake and a nearby mountain Mount Jo in honor of Josephine.

Recent attempts to verify this story have failed and many people now believe that Henry made up the whole thing as a marketing ploy to romanticize his hotel.

Even though there probably never was a Josephine, I suspect that at least once in the last 138 years a man and a woman hiked together to Mount Marcy and fell in love while looking down at Heart Lake and the beauty spread out before them. That is the true story of Henry and Jo.

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Last Thursday I hiked to Iroquois Peak.

Leaving from from the Adirondack Log trailhead just before 7:00 AM, I stop at the McIntyre Brook waterfall at 8:21 AM, pass over Algonquin at 9:55 and reach the summit of Iroquois just before 11. 

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While enjoying a sandwich on Iroquois I remember back to July of 1975 when I worked as a counselor at Crumhorn Mountain Boy Scout Camp. I taught merit badge classes and lived in a large canvas tent with a wooden floor. 

I was a pretty good instructor but what I loved most about that summer was the ceremony we held every Friday night to recognize scouts selected for the honor of joining the Order of the Arrow. It began just after dark in the middle of Lake Crumhorn where about twenty of us waited in the camp’s fleet of canoes. When the scout troops were all assembled in front of the mess hall, we lit torches made with strips of old tent canvas dipped in Kerosene and paddled to shore.

For the next forty minutes we told the legend of the Lenni-Lenape, a peaceful tribe that inhabited the Delaware River Valley long ago. When neighboring tribes started to raid their hunting grounds Chief Chingachgook asked “Who will go to the villages of the Delaware and warn them of the danger that threatens?” No one stepped forward except his son Uncas who volunteered and ran from village to village to provide the warning and recruit others who would volunteer their service for the good of the Lenni-Lenape.

In our ceremony Dave Jones played Chingachgook. I was Meteu, the medicine man, and Eddie Frazier played Uncas. I opened the ceremony by dancing around the council fire, pausing four times to chant a Lennai-Lenape blessing while shaking the large rattles I carried. Dave recited the legend of the Lenni-Lenape and then Eddie sprinted past the gathered campers tapping the new recruits on the chest as Uncas had done when he travelled from village to village to gather volunteers.

Try as I might I cannot remember the words to the songs we sang on those Friday evenings long ago other than the opening line Dave sang after I finished the blessing. I leave Iroquois singing it over and over again hoping that the rest of the words will eventually come to me.

They do not, but I smile anyways remembering that amazing summer in 1975 when I played a medicine man who danced around a council fire.

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My hike to Table Top and Phelps starts later than usual and I don’t depart from the Adirondack Loj trailhead until 8:49 AM. I cross below Marcy Dam at 9:38 and follow the blue trail as it climbs along Phelps Brook before veering south towards Mount Marcy. My plan today is to hike to Table Top Mountain and then climb Phelps Mountain on the way back to the trailhead.

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Marcy Dam

It is hot and humid and I stop at the second to last crossing of the brook to refill my water bottles. A father and a son pass by me as I sit on a rock waiting for the Steri Pen to finish. We exchange hellos and they continue up the blue trail. The boy is a chatter box and appears to be about ten years old. His father is quiet. They are well prepared for the hike carrying day packs and wearing well-worn ankle high boots. I wait a while longer to give them space before rejoining the trail.

I pass the start of the trail to Phelps at 10:15, reach the start of the trail to Table Top at 10:57 and begin the steady climb to the summit. As the trail steepens I narrow the gap and can now hear bits of their conversation. The boy wants to know how much farther is left to climb. The father does not answer at first, perhaps realizing that with lots of climbing yet to do no prediction will satisfy the boy. When pressed, he finally replies, “I don’t know, but we sure have hiked a long way.”

I hear this exchange several more times as they continue the climb and think that there is no better answer to the boy’s question. When I reach the summit they are having lunch on a rock ledge. The father identifies by name the peaks that are spread out before them and the son asks about the trails to each and the father shares his memories from having climbed them in year’s past. After they leave I finish my sandwich as a storm gathers around Mount Marcy.

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Mount Marcy from Table Top

I start the climb to the Phelps summit at 1:25 PM. This trail is much harder than the trail to Table Top and I have to stop several times to catch my breath. I climb a section assuming that I have reached the top only to find that the trail heads in another direction and starts climbing again.

I get discouraged and want to check the map to figure out just how much more is left to climb. Instead I remember the father’s answer to his son and choose not to worry about what lies ahead but rather to be proud of what I have accomplished thus far.

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Wright and Algonquin from Phelps

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One of the reference books I rely on to plan my hikes is the 14th edition of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s “High Peaks Trails” (2012), edited by Tony Goodwin and David Thomas-Train.

Here is what the that book says about Esther Mountain, the peak I climbed on Wednesday:

This most northern of the major Adirondack peaks is named for Esther McComb. In 1839 at the age of 15, while trying to climb Whiteface Mountain from the north, she became lost and made of the first recorded ascent of this mountain instead. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers placed a tablet to her memory on the summit in 1939.

I decide to start from the trailhead just of route 86 after it crosses the West Branch of the Ausable River. I start at 7:00 AM by following the trail to Marble Mountain, much of which can be used by mountain bikes. There are no particularly difficult parts on the hike, just a steady climb. I have the trail to myself and reach the top of Marble Mountain at 8:25 and head southwest on the trail that leads to Whiteface Mountain. Soon I hear snippets of a conversation and realize that a couple is behind me, having started from a different trailhead. I reach the Esther Mountain trail junction at 9:33, pass over Lookout Mountain at 9:44 and am enjoying my sandwich on Esther when the couple finally catch up.

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We exchange hellos. They are from Connecticut and are surprised to hear that I regularly drive to Lake Placid from Baltimore. We gather around the plaque and compare notes about Esther McComb. My story is that she got lost trying to climb Whiteface. Her story is that Esther was never found. His has a happier ending; she was lost while trying to find her father who was surveying Whiteface but he rescued her. I like his story best.

I am amazed at the possibility of being lost on this mountain. It is desolate at the top of the peak. I have no idea what the forests here were like in 1839, but today they are impassable. Every inch is covered by the boughs of pine trees and the trail is very narrow and nearly overgrown. It is cold and very windy. A terrifying place even with a well-defined trail, a compass and a map.

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The hike down is easy and I am off the trail by 1:10 PM,

When I get back to the house I am intrigued about the story of Esther McComb and consult another reference book on my crowded bookshelf, “Heaven Up-h’isted-ness! The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks” (2011). Starting at page 557, Tim Tefft recounts the various legends surrounding the naming of Esther Mountain and then explains, relying on the research of Sandra Weber in “The Lure of Esther Mountain, Matriarch of the Adirondack High Peaks” (1995), that Esther McComb probably never existed

None of the information uncovered by Sandra Weber was available in 1939 when Grace Hudawalski, for whom Grace Peak is named, and her husband decided to organize a celebration to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the legendary ascent with a plaque placed at the summit in Esther’s honor.

And although it turns out that some to the information set in stone at the summit is probably not accurate, there’s an even better ending to this story. As Tim Tefft explains:

For many years, at her summer home near Adirondack on Schroon Lake, Grace Hudowalski had on her porch a summit register canister which had once been fastened to a tree at the top of Esther. Esther Mountain meant a lot to her. After reading Russell Carson’s “Peaks and People” and having determined that she would climb the 46 peaks, Grace decided that Esther Mountain would be her finishing peak. Thus it was that she became 46er #9 on Esther Mountain on August 26, 1937. She was the first woman to complete the 46 and the first 46er to finish on Esther. She championed and celebrated Esther McComb….but is possible, just possible, that the first woman to climb the mountain “just for fun” was Grace herself.

11, 12 and 13

August 3, 2015 — Leave a comment

2015-08-03 14.10.03My plan was to climb three peaks to bring my total to thirteen. I thought I would finish in seven hours. Ten hours later I still had a few miles to go.

I started at the Garden trailhead and decided to take the Southside Trail ignoring the signs warning that it had been abandoned.

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The trail is an old forest road that for the most part is in remarkably good shape.

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But then it disappears, having been violently washed away and into the Johns Brook.

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The trail steepens after crossing Wolf Jaw Brook and I reach the Wolf Jaw Notch just before ten o’clock. I decide to turn right and head first to Upper Wolf Jaw Mountain. I am hiking alone today and am cautious at every tricky part. Others are not. I am passed by a young man running his way to the summit and I meet other groups heading up and down the trail at paces much quicker than mine.

I carry two forms of emergency communication, an ACR personal locator beacon and a signaling mirror that is a hold over from my days as a Boy Scout. It is doubtful that the mirror will be of much use in an emergency given the dense tree cover over head but I like having it and knowing how to use it. The locater beacon communicates with satellites. Although it is surprisingly heavy I always bring it because it provides me with the reassurance I need to hike these trails alone.

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In my earlier hikes I carried a day’s supply of water in a Camelback bladder. Now I bring two water bottles, a filter and a UV water purifier and drink water from the streams and brooks I pass along the way.

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There are two peaks on Upper Wolf Jaw Mountain, I reach the highest one at 10:56. It takes me another hour to reach Armstrong Mountain. I stop for just a minute and turn back, recrossing Upper Wolf Jaw on my way back down to the notch. I am very tired when I start the climb up Lower Wolf Jaw Mountain. I reach its summit at just before two o’clock and stop to enjoy my last sandwich.

Peering across the valley I spot Big Slide Mountain and remember fondly my hike there with two friends last Labor Day weekend and how we sat eating lunch staring at the mountaintop where I am now.

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During that hike we came upon a young deer just as we entered the trail. I think I may have met her again today.

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Goodbye Grace.

July 26, 2015 — 1 Comment

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The planned hike was an ambitious one. Meet for coffee at 7:00, reach the trailhead by 7:30, follow an unmarked trail to the start of the Dix Mountain Range and hike to four of the high peaks before returning to Round Pond. The hike would cover nearly sixteen miles, the first seven of which were along unmarked paths to the first peak.

Her name is Grace and it fits her perfectly. She is simple, elegant and set apart from the other four in the range. She is hard to reach because the path is not that obvious and the several crossings of the South Fork of the Boquet River are hard to find. When you get closer to her the trail improves but then gets very steep.

The view from the summit is breathtaking and we sit silently eating sandwiches and surveying the three remaining peaks we had hoped to reach. They are too far away and separated by valleys that are much deeper than we expect. It has taken too long to get here and there is not enough time left to complete this journey. We decide to head back the way we came and to leave the remaining three for another day.

It is beautiful here and I really do not want to leave. I try to convince myself that I will visit Grace again, but I know it will likely not happen. She stands alone, away from the others and no longer on the way to anything else on my list. I regret this deeply because I have loved this hike more than any of the others I have taken.

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I needed a backpacker’s trowel but there were none at Eastern Mountain Sports. They suggested that I try a hardware store. Trips to the two located in Lake Placid did not turn up the trowel I needed. Almost as an afterthought I stopped into High Peaks Cyclery. Sixty minutes and $126.50 later I left with a new map, first aid kit, whistle, two books and the $1.99 trowel that had brought me there in the first place.

While browsing the shelves of camping equipment I met the owner, Brian Delaney. He and his family have been outfitting hikers and guiding trips into the Adirondack wilderness for the last twenty-eight years. He invited me to sit with him at his map table and after making sure that I had every item on his list of the “Ten Essentials” for outdoor survival he asked me what I had in mind.

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I told him I wanted to hike through Avalanche Pass and climb one of the 46 high peaks. He suggested Mount Colden and marked out a course with a yellow highlighter on the new map he had just sold me.

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I awoke before dawn the next morning and arrived at the Meadow Lane trailhead at 6:00 AM. From here I followed an abandoned truck road to Marcy Dam, 2.7 miles away.

Mount Colden rises from the left behind what is left of the dam. Its distinguishing feature is the pointed false summit in the foreground.

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There are two approaches to top of the mountain. The more popular trail approaches from the false summit side with a steady, gradual climb. At Brian’s suggestion I take the trail from the back side which is steeper but affords spectacular views of the MacIntyre Mountain Range.

To reach this trail I first hike to Avalanche Lake and then on to Lake Colden. The mountains rise quickly on each side of Avalanche Lake and the trail is dotted with ladders, bridges and even cat walks built into several rock faces along the way.

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Lake Colden is much wider and I take the trail down the east side. I focus too much on the ladders and cat walks and miss the intersection of the trail to Mount Colden. After backtracking a bit I reach the summit just before noon.

I enjoy the view for a few minutes and head back down after a quick lunch. I sign out at the Meadow Lane trail register at about 4:00 PM, ten hours and 15.2 miles after I began.

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My nephew Tommy lives in the house where my father died. He sleeps in the room I shared with his father before I moved a bed and some other furniture to the shed next to the garage. In a week he will graduate from Sidney Senior High School, thirty-seven years after I received my diploma from the same school.

This weekend Tommy brought three of his friends to Lake Placid to celebrate their graduation and to hike with me to Algonquin Peak and Wright Peak.

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We arrived at the trailhead before 8:00 AM and took our first rest break as we crossed below the waterfall on MacIntyre Creek. We hiked quickly and were the first group to make it to the summit of Algonquin today.

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The summit was encased in fog and the wind was strong and very cold. We finished our lunches quickly and headed back down to pick up the trail to Wright Peak. It was still foggy when we reached the top but we stayed long enough to watch the fog finally lift, revealing a magnificent view of the peak we had just climbed.

2015-06-19 13.40.18The trails were wet and slippery during the descent and before long Tommy, Brandon, Kyle and Nick pulled away from me.

As I walked down the trail by myself it occurred to me that the town where we all grew up has changed drastically since the day I received my diploma. The factory that first made Magnetos for the Army Air Corps during World War Two and later important components used in the Apollo lunar missions is nothing like it was in the 70s, having lost most of its manufacturing jobs when they were moved to Jacksonville, Florida. The movie theatre in the center of downtown closed years ago and the roller rink recently burned to the ground. The village’s oldest houses along River and Bridge streets were devastated by back to back floods and may need to be torn down. The football team used to have to play all of its games on the road because the field didn’t drain right. Even the traffic signal on Main Street has stopped working.

And yet somehow despite all this my home town has survived and still remains a great place to make friends who will last a lifetime. And for Tommy, Brandon, Nick and Kyle that is more than enough.

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The river hates you.

May 28, 2015 — 4 Comments

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On July 4, 1963, forty-five canoes raced seventy miles from the headwaters of the Susquehanna River to Bainbridge, New York. The winning canoe crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 45 minutes. The same race has been held every Memorial Day since then and the race record has steadily improved to where it stands today at 6 hours, 34 minutes and 34 seconds.

I participated in shorter races held over the annual canoe regatta weekend while growing up in Sidney. I even won a trophy as a member of a winning Boy Scout relay team. I shared my first can of Genesee beer with Tim Barnes after our Grand Prix relay team came in last place four weeks before we graduated from high school in 1978.

Thirty-seven years and one day after that defeat I was back. This time to compete in the 70 mile endurance race with my nephew Alex.

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Our day starts at 6:00 AM on the southern shore of Otsego Lake. We arrive early and leave our canoe near the base of the Indian Hunter statue that originally stood on the site of James Fenimore Cooper’s home until it was moved to the Lakefront Park in 1940.

Leaving the starting line, we race out into the lake to a buoy and then turn back to where the Susquehanna River begins. We are overly cautious at the start and are one of the last canoes to leave the lake. The river is narrow, peaceful and beautiful as it passes through Cooperstown.

We carry the canoe around a small dam near Bassett Hospital without any trouble and begin the twenty-five mile stretch that will take us to a second portage around Collier’s Dam. As we head out of Cooperstown the river becomes more challenging, with fallen trees and dangling branches forming obstacles at many of the bends in the river.

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We do well at first but eventually capsize after being pushed hard into a half sunken log. The water is cold but the life jackets keep us on the surface. Alex is thrown clear but I struggle a bit to free my left foot that has become wedged below the canoe’s rear seat. The water is flowing fast and we fight to pull the canoe toward the right bank of the river. We stand too soon to try to empty the canoe in swift water. I realize the mistake and tell Alex to float further downstream, remembering the rhyme a Shenandoah river guide drilled into me during an earlier whitewater canoe trip, “nose and toes to the sky, keep you alive.”

We reach calm water, empty the boat and retrieve a bottle of Gatorade and our paddles as they float by. As I climb back into the canoe I realize that this is not like any other endurance race I have ever entered.

In those other races the courses were safe and welcoming. When I ran a marathon, the roads were cleared of traffic and there was food and water at every mile. There were even rock and roll bands playing along the route. The Lake Placid Iron Man course was in perfect condition. The swim course was marked with eight foot high buoys and an underwater cable. The road where we bicycled was re-paved and cleaned with street sweepers before the race began. State Troopers blocked every intersection to keep the course free of trucks and cars. There was even a carpet that ran from the beach to the changing tents a quarter-mile away that made for a comfortable run even in bare feet.

This course is different. You race the river as it presents itself to you. There has been no effort to remove even the most dangerous obstacles or to add water with dam releases. No effort to widen or groom the portage trails to make it easier to carry your canoes around the three dams along the way. There are no aid stations along the course and certainly no rock bands. You bring your own food and drink and are resupplied by friends and family who wait for you on muddy river banks along the way.

Today the river hates us and is full of spiteful contradictions. In one stretch it is too fast, hurtling us towards branches and boulders. In another it is at a standstill. We paddle through empty farmland in blistering sun and then duck below branches overhanging the river as it passes through an overgrown forest. We canoe in deep water and then round a corner and find ourselves scraping along the bottom. It is wide when there is no one around us and much too narrow when other boats need to pass us. No matter which way we turn, we are always in a head wind. At one point the wind blows so strong the river reverses its direction.

The day is long and it saps our spirit. Our pace decreases and we end our thirteenth hour just before reaching the finish line. We float to the dock, climb from our boat and shake hands. There are no massage therapists waiting to rub the knots out of my back. Instead, I stretch out on the grass and watch as the last parts of a Ferris Wheel are disconnected and loaded onto a truck.

Alex has two brothers who also want to complete this race and I know I will be back again.

This river hates you but you love her anyway.

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Good Morning Starshine

March 9, 2015 — 2 Comments

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Anna Elizabeth Hubert was born on August 11, 1914, in Newark, New Jersey and died on August 27, 1956, in Saranac Lake, New York. She was my grandmother. She had two brothers, John and  Edward, and one daughter, Mary Ann, who was my mother.

Anna worked in a hospital and contracted Tuberculosis, which is how she ended up in Saranac Lake where she received treatment at Trudeau’s sanatorium. She was in Saranac Lake on November 18, 1942, when she received a telegram from her husband, Edward McGrath, who was on a layover in England before heading home on the troop transport SS Coamo. His message to her was short but very sweet,

ALL WELL AND SAFE MY THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU FONDEST LOVE DARLING

She was still in Saranac Lake when she learned that his ship had been lost at sea; when Army Chief of Staff General Marshall sent her official condolences; and also on December 15, 1943, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote advising her that a Purple Heart had been awarded posthumously to her husband, explaining:

The medal, which you will receive shortly, is of slight intrinsic value, but rich with the tradition for which Americans are so gallantly giving their lives. The Father of our country, whose profile and coat of arms adorn the medal, speaks from across the centuries to the men who fight today for the proud freedom he founded.

And she was still in Saranac Lake on November 23, 1948, when a letter came confirming that my grandfather died when a German U-Boat torpedoed the Coamo.

While my grandmother was dealing with her disease and the loss of her husband, my mother was in Islip Terrace being raised by her grandmother, Katherina Hubert, and her uncles, John and Ed. They also served during the war and John would return home seriously injured, walking with a limp and unable to use his left arm and hand.

My grandmother died before I was born, but John and Ed and their children and grandchildren were an important part of our family. In the late 60’s and early 70’s we spent our summer vacations visiting John and Ed in Islip Terrace. Some of the best times we had during those visits were trips to John’s beach house in Fire Island Pines, which we reached by taking the Sayville Ferry. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we actually witnessed first hand the conversion of the Pines from a place with a sign that proclaimed “Welcome to Fire Island Pines — A Family Community” into the much more sexually liberated, tolerant and diverse community it is today.

There were no cars on Fire Island because there were no roads. Instead there were only boardwalks and everyone used red Radio Flyer wagons to carry groceries and beach chairs and towels. We were often joined by John’s grandchildren and together the seven of us would fish for eels off the harbor dock or wade into the Great South Bay and shuffle our feet to find clams, which my dad would steam for dinner. I learned to body surf on the Atlantic side of the island and first read about the adventures of Ian Fleming’s James Bond from paperbacks I found on the bookshelves that lined the walls of the beach house.

We were there in the summer of 1968 shortly after the musical “Hair” opened on Broadway and also in the summer of 1969 when Oliver’s rendition of Good Morning Starshine became a hit. Sometime after that a decision was made to play the song over the loud speakers set up around the harbor every morning at 7:00 AM.

John’s house was close to the harbor and that song served as our alarm clock, welcoming us each morning to the start of another amazing day on Fire Island with my mother and her Uncle John.

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Skating the Olympic Oval.

January 30, 2015 — 3 Comments

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On July 27, 2014, just before sunset, I finish the marathon portion of the Lake Placid Iron Man and jog around the Olympic Ice Skating Oval to the finish line. The oval is bare concrete during the Iron Man and lined with friends and family waiting to celebrate the finish of the racers they have come to see. I jog easily and smile when I hear Abby cheer “Go Dad!”

Since then I have returned to Lake Placid whenever I get the chance, sometimes to hike the high peaks but more recently to enjoy the winter weather and especially to skate around this oval, now covered with ice.

It is cold tonight and I have the rink to myself. Eric Heiden won five gold medals here during the 1980 Olympics and set the world record during the 10,000 meter race. As I circle the infield I remember when I first learned to skate ten years before those races on a man-made ice rink set up in the village where I grew up. Years later I would spend Wednesday afternoons watching Abby learn to skate in Baltimore and on winter Fridays we would leave from school and skate together at a temporary rink set up next to the Inner Harbor. We haven’t skated together in years and in a matter weeks she will graduate from college and move on to new and greater adventures.

Tonight I stay longer than I had planned and cross the finish line 28 times before leaving. Each time I do, I think of how proud I am of the person my daughter has become.

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Giant love

November 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

Today I climbed Giant Mountain. At 4627 feet it is the twelfth highest of the forty-six high peaks. I take the Roaring Brook Trail approach which is 3.6 miles to the summit with an ascent of 3375 feet.

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It is just below freezing when I start and I wear the winter hiking clothes I bought yesterday. My hiking shoes are heavier today with spikes attached.

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The trees are bare and the lower part of the trail is covered with frosty dead leaves. The rocks that just weeks ago were coated with wet moss are now encased in ice that the spikes grip easily.

I make a quick detour to visit the Roaring Brook Falls before rejoining the trail to the summit.

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It starts to snow and soon the trail is covered with a light dusting that tells me that no one else has passed this way this morning. I pause occasionally to take pictures and make steady progress up the trail.

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I do not see another person until I am nearly to the top when I step aside to let a young couple come down a rock face from above. They are returning from having spent the night at the lean-to on the far side of the mountain with gear they rented for the weekend. They do not have spikes on their boots and it is too slippery for them to walk on this part of the trail. Instead, they sit and slide down the rock together, smiling and laughing the whole way down.

I have the summit to myself. It is beautiful but cold so I do not stay long. On the way down I pause at the rock with the side by side slide marks and smile remembering how two people, clearly in love with each other, spent a few wonderful moments together in a wonderful place.

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A bench by a stream

November 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

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In early June, I purchased a new bike to use during the 2014 Lake Placid Iron Man and spent the last weeks of my training practicing on it, mostly while circling Lake Montebello hundreds of time. I rode it on the course once before the race, just before the road to Keene was re-paved. It handled well during the ride but I felt uncomfortable when riding in an aerodynamic position, especially down the steep hill leaving Lake Placid. My center of gravity seemed too high and way too far forward and I felt that the slightest mistake would send me tumbling to the ground.

The days leading up to the race were beautiful. An easy run on Thursday was followed by a short bike ride on Friday in perfect weather. A flat rear tire greeted me when I brought the bike out the basement door on Saturday morning. There was no clear puncture and although I thought I found a small piece of glass poking through the tire, I was not sure I had found the source of the leak before replacing the tube

I woke early on race day and walked to the transition area with my brother and a bike pump fearing that the tire would be flat again. It was pretty cold but the sky was clearing and I was optimistic that the predicted rain might not actually appear. The rear tire was fine.

I was at the beach early, trying to get towards the front at the start but ultimately only made it to the fourth wave. I did not wear a wetsuit and kept my sweatshirt and sweatpants on until the last-minute when I left them, never to be seen again, neatly folded next to a trash can.

I stayed far left during the swim and swam by the wet-suited competitors bunched tightly and colliding with each other while following the cable that connected the course buoys. It started to rain within the first 800 meters and with one half mile left the thunder-storm hit. I watched the lightning flashes as I breathed to the right side and the short delay before the thunder-claps told me the storm was moving towards us very quickly. I swam as fast as I could to get back to the finish of the swim course and waved to Kathy and Abby as I ran up the chute leading from the shore.

I spent a long time transitioning to the bike portion of the race. It was raining hard and the thunder-storm was in full force. I was soaked even before I mounted my bike. None of us were in a hurry during the fourteen mile ride down to Keene in the pouring rain. Once we reached the bottom the rain eased and the rest of the ride went by without incident.

I felt good at the start of the run. I was on schedule and certain that I could finish with time to spare. I ran for five minutes and then walked for thirty-seconds, guided by a Garmin watch that beeped on cue. I repeated that cycle fifty-nine times before crossing the finish line.

During the run I passed by a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division next to a small stream. I promised myself that someday I would come back and visit it for a while.

Which is what I did today.

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Manhattan Transfer

October 26, 2014 — 1 Comment

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I never see the dawn that I don’t say to myself perhaps.

John Dos Passos, author Manhattan Transfer (1925)

In the summer of 1972, I pulled on a green bathing suit, jumped into Lake Crumhorn and breaststroked behind a wooden rowboat for forty-five minutes to earn my Mile Swim Badge from the Boy Scouts of America. I would not participate in an open water swim again until September 19, 2010, when I swam three miles as part of Baltimore’s inaugural Swim Across America. Since then I have swum past the Hudson River’s Little Red Lighthouse three times, across the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River at its widest point, up and down the Chester, Nanticoke and Patapsco Rivers and along the Chicago skyline in Lake Michigan and the Atlantic shoreline in Ocean City. At each of these swims I paid the modest entry fee and sometimes a small donation, but never really focused on using the swims to raise money to help others.

During this year’s Lighthouse swim I came to really appreciate the amazing friendships that I have formed through open water swimming. It occurred to me that without the support of my friends who have trained, travelled and competed with me I would never have accomplished any of this. As I finished the swim and climbed the stairs out of the Hudson I decided to form a team for next year’s relay race around Manhattan and to use the event to raise money for Swim Free, a charity that funds learn-to-swim programs at community pools in underserved areas.

My relay-mates are amazing people. Tim, our captain, was born on April 1st in the bathroom of the house where his parents still live. That one sentence explains a lot about Tim. He is the type of guy who can’t wait to get started, whether on the deck before a routine practice or on the shore at the start of a long open water swim. “Let’s do this,” he’ll proclaim and then we are off and swimming. Tim out in front and the rest of us trailing behind. At the end of the swim, his is the first face you will see, smiling and offering encouragement as the rest of us finish. Tim trains with passion and the example he sets has inspired me to work hard and follow him, first up the Hudson River and then on a seven and one-half mile swim across the Potomac and at many more swims since then. Tim taught me to believe in myself as a swimmer and that confidence has made all the difference.

I met Claudia for the first time early on the Sunday morning following my first Lighthouse swim. I had stayed in New York too long and had a long drive to get back to Baltimore in time for its third Swim Across America event. I showed up at the swim club parking lot after only two hours of sleep, threw her the keys to my car and asked her to drive. She not only drove me to the swim and back that day, she also swam next to me for three miles, stroke for stroke to make sure I was okay. Since then she has completed the Ocean City, Purple and Potomac River swims and a 70.3 mile triathlon. She is my favorite training partner and a wonderful and caring person with an infectious smile.

Sandra and I became friends on a subway ride from Dykman Street to SoHo when she tagged along with our group first to a nice bar at the southern tip of Manhattan, then back towards the Empire State Building and on to the 24-hour McDonald’s on 33rd and Seventh Avenue. There is nothing quite so delicious as chicken McNuggets and french fries to cap off a night out after a hard swim. Sandra spends her summers training in the Atlantic near Sandy Hook with the “Sunrise Crew” who can be found in the ocean or nearby river at 5:30 AM on every Tuesday and Thursday between June and October. When she is not busy raising her two young children, Sandra regularly swims in ocean mile races while still finding time to enjoy a 5k swim on most summer weekends.

Tim is well-known to NYC Swim, having consistently finished near the top during the last three Lighthouse swims. I, on the other hand, am a middle of the pack guy at best. Sandra has also completed three Lighthouse swims and although Claudia has not yet participated in a NYC Swim event she too is a very accomplished open water swimmer. Tim and Sandra aspire to solo swims around Manhattan, which I know they will one day accomplish. My dream is to spend a month one summer swimming as much of the Hudson as possible and I hope to convince Claudia, Tim and Sandra to swim parts of it with me.

Tim often mentions to me that he has met his best friends through swimming. I could not agree more. I am amazed at how swimming has brought Tim, Claudia and Sandra into my life. We are from different parts of the country and come from different backgrounds. If you drew a straight line connecting the places where we were born it would stretch 3,333 miles. But somehow through a maze of circumstances, opportunities and life choices we have intersected and become friends. That is what swimming has done for me and what it can do for others.

If fortunate enough to be selected for this year’s race our team will train hard and give the swim our maximum effort. And when the four of us cross the finish line together we will each be the better for our efforts, having given back a little to the sport that has given us so much.

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On top of New York

September 15, 2014 — 3 Comments

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There comes a time in life when you don’t look forward to birthdays. It’s like reading a good book. At the beginning you love everything you experience with each turning page and can never imagine that the story will end. As you reach the last pages you read each one with both excitement to see how the story will end and with regret realizing that this amazing story you have been reading is almost over and that once you have read the last page there will be no going back.

Yesterday was my birthday and I decided that today would be the day I would hike to Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State. The mountain is named for New York Governor William L. Marcy, who authorized the survey that originally explored the area. Its first recorded ascent was on August 5, 1837, by a large party led by Ebenezer Emmons who were looking for the source of the East Fork of the Hudson River which they decided was Lake Tear of the Clouds, located just below Mt. Marcy.

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I start my hike at 6:30 AM and will spend the next eleven hours hiking seventeen miles.

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I spend most of the hike thinking about Saturday when I watched my nephew play in the homecoming football game. I met a friend from high school there and we drank coffee while sitting on the aluminum stands and telling each other about our respective daughters, each now much older than we were when we last spent as much time together as we did on Saturday. I remember fondly, but do not mention, the times we spent together floating down the Unadilla River in inner tubes and how she was the first person with whom I actually shared a kiss. Instead we talk about friends who have died and being in Explorer Scouts together and she laughs while telling me that her daughter loves to wear the tee-shirt that served as our uniform in 1977. When I say goodbye to her I realize that I had not seen her in over ten years and am a bit sad wondering how many more years will pass before I see her again.

I summit Marcy at 10:11 AM and after a short stop continue down its other side to Lake Tear in the Clouds.

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The lake is clear and there are stones lining the bottom at the mouth where it empties into the stream that leads to the Hudson River. I have not seen a soul all morning and decide to go for a swim. I leave my clothes on a warm rock and wade out a ways. I consider swimming across the lake and back but the water is a bit too cold so after a few strokes I scamper back to the warmth of my flannel shirt and wool sweater.

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After the swim I climb Gray Peak, another of the 46, and then decide to head back to Marcy and leave nearby Mount Skylight for another hike.

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I have brought with me a molasses cookie and a single candle to celebrate my birthday. I ponder awhile, taking in the view of the valleys and mountain ranges below me. I think about all that I have accomplished since my last birthday and decide not to light the candle. While I don’t know how many more pages are left before my book will end, on this day and at this moment I can think of nothing better to wish for than to be exactly where I am, sitting on top of New York eating a molasses cookie with hair still a little wet.

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My mother spent her high school years in Saranac Lake while her mother, a nurse who treated tuberculosis patients, attempted to recover from the same disease. She told me stories of how she and her classmates would take a motor boat from Lower Saranac through the Upper Lock and into Middle Saranac Lake. I’d often wanted to visit that lock and repeat that trip and yesterday I got my chance.

We left the Second Pond boat launch at noon, traveling in a canoe and a kayak. A light rain fell most of the day and there was a strong headwind at the start of the trip. We traveled upstream to the end of Lower Saranac and entered the channel connecting the two lakes. Halfway through we came upon the Upper Lock and visited with the lock keeper as she closed the downstream gates behind us and then opened the upstream wickets causing the water level to rise the two feet necessary to bypass the rapids on the other side of the island.

When we reached Upper Saranac, we stopped for lunch at the first island we came to and then decided to head back. We spent some more time visiting with the lock keeper on the return trip. She explained that the lock had been in place for nearly 100 years with its last major upgrade in the 1980s. On a busy day she will operate the lock more than 100 times. As the water drained to lower us to the exit, she explained that some canoeists actually run the rapids rather than use the lock.

When the downstream gate opened, we paddled around the island and after a short consultation decided to make one more pass through the lock. The keeper shook her head when we passed into the downstream gate and disclaimed any responsibility for damage or injury as the water filled the lock. When the gate opened we turned left, entered the channel and several exhilarating seconds later shot out the end of the rapids and rejoined the calmer waters.

As we paddled away I wished I had visited the lock earlier in my life and been able to share this story with my mother.

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The two of us left Baltimore early Friday and had just crossed into Pennsylvania when my phone alerted with a text message. A quick stop was followed by a quick phone call and a quick change of plans. We circled back and after a short stop for coffee the three of us were back on our way to the Baseball Hall of Fame and then on to Lake Placid.

The next morning we started the hike a bit later than planned. The parking lot at The Garden trailhead was full so we parked at Marcy Field, five miles away, and took the local bus to our starting point. The driver stressed that the last bus back would leave at 7:00 PM, “sharp ’cause I’m not waiting.”

We signed the trail register and started our hike to Big Slide by way of The Brothers. We would hike nearly ten miles before the day was finished, ascending 2800 feet to the summit of Big Slide, which at 4,290 feet is 27th in the order of height of the 46 high peaks I hope to climb over the next four years.

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The weather was perfect and everything we saw was beautiful. We stopped two hundred yards from the trailhead to watch a young deer as she slowly crossed the trail in front of us. We paused at every overlook, sometimes to enjoy a sandwich, others to share cheese and apples, and still others just for quiet contemplation. We taught her how to use a compass and how to orient a map. She picked most of the routes up the rocks and we followed.

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We met interesting people along the trails and at the overlooks. A couple from Montreal was just finishing a hot lunch and shared stories of their other hikes together. As we approached the summit, we paused to let a family pass us by, the pre-teen boys descending with abandon and using saplings to break their falls and slow their descents. Their sisters were a little older, but just as courageous. At the summit it seemed that everyone there had some connection or another to Indiana.

We finished the food we brought, took some pictures and headed back by way of a trail along Slide Mountain Brook which we crisscrossed several times hopping from rock to rock to keep dry.

With four miles left we heard the same laughter and shouting we had heard earlier and knew we were coming upon the boys and girls we had watched scamper down from the summit a few hours before. They had found a natural water slide and were taking turns gliding along its moss-covered rocks into the pool of very cold water at its bottom. We were tired and very short on time but stopped anyway. We emptied our pockets, placed our packs in a dry place and for fifteen minutes became young again.

We hustled back to the trailhead and made it in time for the last shuttle bus. We had spent the day to the fullest, not compelled to rush away from the beauty we were experiencing and had even played in a water slide and still made it back in time.

Which goes to show that sometimes you just need to forget about the schedule, take time to enjoy beauty and turn around for a friend.

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August 28, 2014 — 2 Comments

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My brother lives in the house where I grew up and when we were younger we used to throw the football to each other along the driveway that cuts through the back yard.

I always wanted to play football but never was good enough. When I played catch with others I dropped more passes than I caught. But when the two of us played along that driveway it was different. He knew just the right touch to apply to the ball and whatever he threw to me I could catch. We would run imaginary pass plays from the time we finished our homework until our mother called us in for dinner.

He would later play high school football after I left for college and I often wondered what it would have been like, had there not been a difference in age and in skill, to have played as brothers on the same football team.

Last week his two oldest sons did just that, starting at quarterback and receiver. I was unable to make it to the game but listened to the local radio station’s play-by-play over the Internet while in Chicago. I marveled while listening at how well Tommy and Alex seemed to play together. Although constantly under pressure and close to being sacked, Tommy always seemed to get the pass off in time and to find a wide open Alex for a completion and good gain. Their team lost that night but not before Tommy set a new school record for passes attempted. Alex caught 8 of those passes for 80 yards, one reception short of another school record.

Alex played both offense and defense and late in the third quarter was slow getting up from the turf after blocking a pass thrown into the end zone. I would learn later that Alex injured his kidney during that play and would spend the next several days recovering from surgery in the hospital. He is fine now and expected to make a full recovery but will not play football again this season.

I am typing this while seated at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. Tommy has already left and in a little while Alex and I will make our way to the field and watch this year’s Homecoming game from the stands. And while I regret that I never got to see Alex and Tommy play together, I know that Tommy will play his heart out tonight, that Alex has many great games ahead of him and that they will always have the driveway.

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Alone in the woods

August 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

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It’s 56° and there’s a light rain as I drive from Lake Placid into the Keene Valley to begin today’s hike to Porter and Cascade Mountains, two of the forty-six high peaks I hope to summit in the next four years. The conditions are not great but if I’m going to complete this journey in time for the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the 46ers I’m going to need to hike in all conditions.

I have probably over-packed for today’s hike, a vestige from my Boy Scout days. I am carrying three liters of water in a Camelback, the pockets of which I have stuffed with a space blanket, emergency sleeping bag, signaling mirror, first aid kit, map, guidebook, flint and a survival knife. I am also carrying two sandwiches, some fruit and the compass pictured above.

I start at 7:20 AM from the Marcy Field parking area and climb first to Blueberry Mountain and then on to Porter and Cascade before returning to the parking lot. I am alone today and will hike for thirteen miles, not seeing another person for eleven of those miles.

The trail to Blueberry Mountain is very steep at the beginning but the mountaintop offers wonderful views of the fog lifting from the valley below. The trail is well-marked with yellow trail markers and stone cairns placed strategically across the rock outcroppings where there are no trees.

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While following the line of cairns atop Blueberry Mountain I came upon some stones made into the shape of a heart. The moss growing on the stones tells me they have been here for sometime. As I head on to Porter I wonder about the story behind the heart on top of the mountain and begin thinking about a backpacking trip I took in the Adirondacks with John and Jerry in the late fall of our senior year of high school.

At the time I had a terrible crush on a girl in our class. We’d become friends that summer and spent a wonderful day taking her younger sister on all the amusement rides at that year’s State Fair just before school began. I never mustered the courage to tell her how I felt about her and our relationship never went any further. Just before leaving for the trip I learned that she was going steady with the captain of the basketball team.

I was heartbroken and not very good company to John and Jerry. With John, though, a bad mood never lasts long. While he had no great words of wisdom he just knew how to make you feel better and when we walked out from the woods three days later I was ready to move on from the heartbreak.

Jerry died of cancer at age 41 and I remember how devastated his son JT was at the funeral. Later that spring John organized the first of many annual trips to South Carolina to take JT golfing and visit with Jerry’s parents. Over the years I watched JT grow into the amazing person he is today and marveled again at how John knew how to say and do just the right things to help JT deal with the tragic loss of his father.

As I finish today’s hike I realize that I have never known a more dedicated and caring friend than John. So while I’ll never learn the true story behind the heart made out of stones I came upon in the Adirondacks today, I will choose to remember it as a symbol of the love shown by John to a friend who left us too soon.

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Trails to Porter and Cascade

Trails to Porter and Cascade

Next weekend I hope to climb two of the Adirondack’s forty-six high peaks, Porter Mountain (4059 feet, order of height 38) and Cascade Mountain (4098 feet, order of height 36). I’ll be guided on my journey to become a 46’r by the 14th edition of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s amazing book, High Peaks Trails, and the topographic map that accompanies the book and illustrates the trails to each of the high peaks.

Porter Mountain is named for Noah Porter, Ph.D., the president of Yale University from 1871 to 1886. He was a summer resident of the Keene Valley and made the first recorded ascent of the peak in 1875 with renowned guide Ed Phelps.

Cascade Mountain is one of the most popular high peaks hikes because it is easily accessible from a trailhead on Route 86, number 90 above, and has a bald summit that affords spectacular views of the area’s other high peaks as well as the Champlain Valley to the east. The mountain was originally called Long Pond Mountain but later renamed Cascade Mountain for the steep and beautiful waterfall that cascades down the mountain into the two lakes below.

There are three trails to Porter and Cascade mountains. I have chosen the trail to Porter Mountain from Marcy Airfield by way of the Ridge Trail, number 17 above. High Peaks Trails notes that “there is some steep climbing in the lower sections, but the variety of views makes it worthwhile.” I’ll let you know whether I agree next week.

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A few words of thanks

July 27, 2014 — 10 Comments

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

On July 22, 2013, I bought a new pair of running shoes and started this journey. Since then I’ve swum 545 miles, ran 693 and biked for 4,542 miles more. Along the way I’ve jogged through downtown Bucharest and along the shore of the Black Sea; biked with Lucy in Sofia; swum in the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson, Chester and Potomac Rivers; had one serious bike crash and taught the bartender at the Times Square Applebees how to make a perfect Martini. The 2014 Lake Placid Iron Man has just started and I will soon be swimming in Mirror Lake with number 367 painted on my arms. If all goes well sometime before midnight tonight I will add another 140.6 miles to these totals and then stop keeping track.

I have approached today’s race with mixed emotions. On some days I would wake brimming with confidence. On others full of self-doubt wondering what I had gotten myself into when I signed up for this. But no matter how I felt when each day began by its end I always fell asleep reflecting on how fortunate I was to have the support of my family and friends as I worked to achieve this goal. And for that I offer these few words of thanks.

First and foremost I thank Kathy who has supported and encouraged me throughout this journey as I transformed from someone who didn’t really exercise much into a dedicated athlete spending most of his spare time either swimming, running or biking. She has been with me from the start when I bought a new bike so that I could start riding it to work and never complained when I followed that purchase with a road bike, a folding bike and most recently a high-end carbon fiber racing bike.

I appreciate very much the swim coaching I have received over the years, starting with Bruce Rinker, followed by Katie, Bethany, Natalie, Zach, Joe and Lindsey. More than the coaching though, I am deeply grateful for the lane mates who have put up with me over the last four years, especially Will, Andrew, Bob, Suzanna, Krista, Brittany, Sarah, Corrine and Lauren. You have made swimming fun for me and I will never forget the times we spent together on our road trips to Bivalve, New York and Point Lookout. Thanks also to Dean, Jim, Ryan, Michele, Kelly, Miguel, Laura and Phil, experienced Iron Man finishers who have offered encouragement and great suggestions along the way. Elysia and Molly are among the dozens of other Marylanders who are here to race and volunteer. I wish them a safe and successful journey across the lake, over the mountains, through the forests and beside the rivers today.

I would not be the bicyclist I am today were it not for Bob, Dave, PJ, Mike and Charlie. You have taught me the joy of long distance cycling with friends and for that I am truly grateful.

The hardest part of the training for me has been the running and I will not set any records on the marathon portion of today’s race. Of all the disciplines however, my running has improved the most and for this I remember fondly and thank Dave, Parnell and John; Valerie; Josh and Glenn; and Kyle, Eric, Jim, Dave, Beth and Monica.

I owe special debts of gratitude to Tim who taught me to believe in myself as a swimmer and to Claudia who encouraged me to start this blog, swam with me in the very cold and rough Atlantic and during an emotional Purple Swim and trained with me for my first triathlon. I will cherish our friendships always.

And finally I am most grateful to Abby who helped me fall back in love with swimming which, after all, is what started this in the first place.

When I was in Lake Placid over Memorial Day weekend, a triathlon club from New York was also in town training. From time to time I would be passed by a member of that club who would call out to me “You can do it!” I would give a slight nod or a wave but didn’t really understand what was going on until later when I saw two members from the club pass each other by. The first yelled out the familiar “You can do it!” to which the second responded “I love you baby!”

Thank you again for the friendship, love and support that have brought me to the point where I really believe I can do this today. And with that let me close simply by saying to each of you, very sincerely, “I love you baby.”

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David Kelley handed this birthday card to my wife on her twelfth birthday. He had recently returned home from a long stay at the hospital and upon arriving penned the following letter to Kathy and their mother full of hope that he was getting better:

. . . Now you all know that for the past few weeks I have been in the hospital with a very bad germ. Recently I came home to take care of myself. And since I have to take care of myself what we need is cooperation.

Now Kathy, your job will be to help Mom as much as possible. Such as keeping your room clean, cleaning up the bathroom occasionally and helping Mom with the dishes at night. I say this because it takes a lot less time to do the dishes if two does it than one. You probably think that’s a lot for you and maybe it is but if you don’t help Mom she will get all tired and worn out. Then she won’t do the therapy right and I won’t get the frogs up which means I will get an infection. Also she might forget an important dose of medicine and then there won’t be anything to fight back against the germs inside me and I’ll get sick and have to go in the hospital and Granny will have to come for another month and you’ll go back to living the way you have for the past month. Now which would you rather do? Help Mom a little each day or have Gran come down for another month while I’m in the hospital. I think you’ll agree you’ll be much better off with helping Mom.

Now Mom, your job is to keep me well. Make sure I get my medicine on time and therapy and masks done when they’re supposed to be done.

And last of all my job is to keep rested and not over do it and before you know it I’ll be good as new and I can start helping. . .

There was no happy ending to this story because the medicines and therapy available then were not very effective. Kathy helped her mom throughout her brother’s illness and hadn’t really needed any encouragement to do so from David. She did it because she loved him and that devotion and affection helped mold her into the caring and faith-filled person she is today.

As of this morning I will have presented my wife with thirty-one birthday cards, none as special as the one she received in 1972 from a brother who loved her dearly.

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I recently came across this essay my father wrote for an English class during World War II among the pictures and letters I have to remember him by.

Young Boys Solve Meat Shortage

Last Tuesday evening at dusk the Ridgedale and Valley Road “ginsters” solved the meat shortage by having fricasseed garter snake a la “57” sauce. The novel adventure took place in the ravine called “Second Creek.”

This outing was led by “Willy” Burns head of the “ginsters.” Burns presided as chief broiler and was assisted by the notorious Frank Buck of the crowd, Jimmy Staker. The snake was fricasseed to a savory brown. Vitamins A, B, C, D, and Z were all extracted but plenty of minerals remained. The reptile was served with plenty of relish, the main course being pickles. There was plenty for all, the snake being a garter. 

The meeting closed by all members participating in an enthusiastic snake dance about the dying embers. . .

My father died eighteen years ago. And while I don’t think I’ll ever try fricasseed garter snake, today I will smile a little imagining how much fun he must have had, that Tuesday evening long ago, snake dancing with his friends around the dying embers of a campfire.

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This picture appears at page 346 of Thomas Morris Longstreth’s The Adirondacks, published in 1917. In that book, Longstreth describes the Adirondack Park as follows:

We have our little air holes in the cities, which we call parks, and we have some sections of the West roped off by law which the East is welcome to roam over if it can pay the carfare to them. But it has remained for New York State to set aside more than a tithe of its total area where men and women can seek sanctuary from cities and heat and the everlasting press of things. And New York State has done more. She has not only offered her mountains and lakes and woods to the tired student from Ithaca, the tired philosopher from the Hub, the tired businessman from everywhere, but she has made trails through the mountains, has stocked the streams and lakes, and is doing her best to preserve the forest. The citizens of the State pay for this, and anybody can enjoy their gift for a thank-you.

Perhaps inspired by these words, brothers Robert and George Marshall along with their friend and guide, Herbert Clark, climbed Whiteface Mountain on August 1, 1918. Nearly seven years later, on June 10, 1925, the three finished climbing the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks and became the first three members of “The Adirondack Forty-Sixers.”

Since then 8,283 hikers have joined Herbert Clark and the Marshall brothers to become an “ADK 46-R.” If all goes well, later this month I will start my own journey to add my name to that list. I will start the first hike sometime after 12:01 AM on July 28, 2014, but will save Whiteface Mountain until last and climb it on the 100th anniversary of the hike that started it all.

So, if you have a few days to spare over the next four years, pick a peak that interests you and come hike with me a while.

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On Wednesday, March 28, 1951, my father wrote the following letter from Yeongdeungpo, Korea:

Dear Folks:

I write to say hello and to tell all of you that I am fine, hope that you are too.

Today I received letters from all of you plus one from Albert Haigh – am planning to reply to him tonight.

I guess that mother’s chaperoning at Aθπ is probably over now since vacation time must be over by now. I got a big kick out of Angie telling me that a certain individual was caught speeding in that big Town of Moravia and if that’s not bad enough this “20 year driver” did not even have his license. Even I did not forget my license when I got caught in Moravia. You must be careful you know.

I wrote my first PIO story for the 51 as you know and it has been sent out. If it gets in Stars and Stripes I will send you the clippings since you will probably enjoy the big snow job.

I guess that Earl’s chickens are coming along real fine by now and that the 1500 new ones should be arriving about the time this letter does. With that he will have 2500, 4% loss should give him about 2400 good ones. What types of poultry is he raising, layers or broilers? The way I understand it upstate New York is not too advantageous for the broiler type and that layers are the thing so I suppose you will be getting some of Earl’s fresh eggs before long. The way to plan it is to have your big laying season in the spring (April) when the price is high. Or is it late fall? I’m not so sharp on my principles of poultry marketing anymore but there should be a book on it someplace in my room.

I have not received any of those bulletins — the ones for me and the ones for Shanks — I guess that they will probably come through sometime soon though.

My latest accomplishment was the “mastering” of the game of chess — very interesting — much more so than checkers. If I have to stay over here another 5 or 6 months I should be an expert by the time I hit 212.

Give my best to Angie, Earl, Grace, Gil, Angie Rae, Rex and Two-bits.

Love to all.

x x Paulie x x

Letters like these were very important in my family and I have a small collection of the ones my father wrote while serving in Korea. They kept my grandparents from worrying too much about the battles that were raging on the other side of the world and perhaps allowed them to sleep a little more peacefully while they waited for him to return safely home.

Earlier today our President defended his decision to exchange five Taliban fighters in order to obtain the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Speaking in Brussels, the President explained “I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction. This is not some political football. You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn’t seen in five years, and weren’t sure whether they’d ever see again. And as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, I am responsible for those kids.”

Re-reading my father’s letter, I am proud that all our Presidents, from Washington to Lincoln to Bush and to Obama, have held steadfast to the bedrock principle that our Country does not leave its soldiers behind on the battlefield.

My grandparents surely felt the same way too.

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Remember David Kelley

May 21, 2014 — 4 Comments

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David Kelley was born on March 5, 1962 and died in 1973 from Cystic Fibrosis. I married his older sister thirteen years after that. David loved the Peanuts characters and after watching one of the many cartoon specials he would write in his own words the story as he remembered it. Here is my favorite:

Your In Love Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown is in love with a little red-headed girl on a day before the last day of school. When Charlie Brown got to school he decided to write a note to the little red-headed girl and give it to her sometime in the day.

Just then his teacher called on him to recite. He had to take a stack of paper to the front of the class and in his nervousness dropped them all. After considerable fumbling he began to read his report. “Dear little red-haired girl. How I have longed to meet you.” The class roared with laughter. Poor Charlie Brown, he had read the wrong things.

During the lunch hour Charlie felt worse. He just sat alone on the bench. He longed to go over and ask the little red-haired girl to eat lunch with him but that’s kind of a difficult thing to do when you’re afraid of being laughed at like Charlie Brown here.

When Charlie Brown realized the spot he was in he had to do something fast or wait for three months til school started again. At one time in the afternoon Charlie went over to the pencil sharpener where he thought he might talk to her but he got nervous and ended up sharpening his ballpoint pen by mistake.

That night Charlie knew what he had to do. Tomorrow was the last day of school and there would be only one half session. Therefore he would have to meet the little red-haired girl at the bus stop, so just to make sure he got there on time he set the alarm for four o’clock. When the alarm went off at four Charlie Brown woke up. His eyes were barely open when he went outside. When Charlie got to the bus stop it wasn’t long before he was asleep. When the bus finally came Charlie Brown was still asleep. The roar of the bus pulling away awoke Charlie.

He ran after it but it was no use. This meant Charlie wasn’t going to be early he was going to be late. Charlie climbed over the fence and opened the door. He crawled along the floor and was just beside his desk when the teacher saw him. Now he had to explain why he was late and do a math problem on the board besides. It looked like Charlie Brown was trying to solve all the math problems in the world at one time. Then his teacher asked him if he knew what he was doing. “No Ma’am, I don’t have the slightest idea.” For the second time in two days everyone in the class laughed at Charlie Brown.

Soon the morning would be over and school would be out and the little red-haired girl would be gone. Then Charlie thought why couldn’t I meet her at the bus stop. The bell rang and Charlie led all the children out of school. Charlie stopped and looked for his girl. Kids swarmed by. Some more kids ran by. Charlie looked in all directions but the kids were too much for him. Before he knew what had happened the bus pulled away. Charlie said why couldn’t something go right? Why does everything have to go wrong? Wait! What’s this? Somebody tucked a piece of paper into Charlie’s hand. It read:

I like you Charlie Brown
Signed
Little Red-Haired Girl

The End.

I don’t know if David knew he was going to die when he wrote this. He did know he was very sick but still tried to live his life to the fullest. He learned everything he would ever learn about love from Charles Schulz and I don’t believe he could have had a finer teacher. And while he never got to meet his little red-haired girl, he died knowing what love is and perhaps that was enough.

Rest in peace brother.

David John Kelley
March 5, 1962 to April 12, 1973

Reading the run

May 18, 2014 — 2 Comments

tenderis

During a typical week of training I run for five hours and bike for ten. To help pass the time I have started listening to audiobooks on my iPhone as I jog through the neighborhood.

I just finished every recording of the books and stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and this morning started listening to Fitzgerald. I am an hour into today’s run when Dick Diver tells an adoring Rosemary Hoyt “You’re the only girl I’ve seen for a very long time that actually did look like something blooming.”

I remember with a smile the first time I read that line. It was the summer before my junior year at Cornell when, rather than return home, I stayed in Ithaca working as a camp counselor and on three nights each week running with another ROTC cadet.

Her name was Val. We became friends after getting lost together while orienteering. Realizing we were hopelessly off course we folded the map, closed the compass and ambled through the woods until we came upon a set of abandoned railroad tracks that we were able to follow back to the parking lot.

We started running together soon thereafter and continued our routine until the end of the summer. We would meet at her apartment, run north past the fraternities and sororities that lined Stewart Avenue and cross the bridge over Ithaca Falls and enter Cayuga Heights. We would run for about 45 minutes until we reached President Rhodes’ house and then turn back.

There was no television at the boarding house where I lived so I spent the rest of my free time reading. That summer I read everything written by Leon Uris, Herman Waulk, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

When the summer ended so too did my runs with Val. She decided that the Army was not for her and gave up her scholarship. I would never again find the free time to read as much as I did that summer nor ever enjoy running as much as I did with Val.

Until today.

On the road again

May 9, 2014 — 2 Comments

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I wake early today for a short bike ride to and around Lake Montebello. This is my second bike ride since the accident and later this morning I will try to bike to work. My arm feels stronger everyday and I hope to be able to start swimming again tomorrow. The black eye is mostly faded and the stitches will be removed in three hours.

Heading home I pass an ambulance leaving my neighborhood. I can’t quite catch the number but think it’s Medic 31. I lift my sore left arm from the handle bar and flash a thumbs up. The driver taps the horn twice and both paramedics give me a wave.

It’s good to be back.

Friends indeed

May 5, 2014 — 7 Comments

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They say with bike crashes that it is not a matter of if, but when. Yesterday was my turn.

I woke early to meet Dave, Bob and PJ for breakfast before the start of this year’s Monument to Monument Ride. I have not made many of Bob’s monthly century rides lately, being too consumed with training for this summer’s Lake Placid Iron Man, but was determined not to miss this ride.

The weather was perfect and we along with nearly 100 other riders leave Baltimore’s Mount Vernon at 8:15 AM. Dave and I bring up the rear to make sure that no rider is dropped and left to finish the ride alone. Along the way Dave fixes a broken chain for another rider and we help a first timer make it to Union Station where she has decided to call it a day.

Bob and PJ are interspersed with other riders, but the four of us meet up again at 6:00 PM on Hammonds Ferry Road and ride into Baltimore together, hoping to make it to Hampden in time for a quick dinner and some beer. We leave the Gwynns Falls Trail and turn right onto Warner Street. Bob and PJ are a bit ahead and out of sight when Dave and I make the turn. Warner Street is criss-crossed with abandoned rail tracks and although I have rolled across them dozens of times before without incident, today is different. I am a bit tired and inattentive and before I know it I am tumbling to the pavement and steel below my left elbow.

I seem fine at first, although my sunglasses are missing and my face is hot and wet. Dave stops and runs back to me. The look on his face tells me I am in trouble. I look down and my jersey and shorts are showing the spots that are forming as the blood slowly drips down my face and off my chin.

Dave retrieves the first aid kit from my bag and opens it. It is very windy and I have stuffed the kit with extra bandages which the wind catch and send skipping down the road. Dave opens a roll of gauze, wads it and hands it to me. Bob and PJ have now turned back to find us and when they arrive the gauze is already soaked through. I start shivering and Dave covers my legs with the sweater, pictured above, that I was wearing earlier in the day.

I am sitting with my back against a jersey wall being kept company by the best friends in the world when Medic 4 pulls up. The ambulance is massive and stops within inches from where I am sitting. Two paramedics climb down, get swiftly to work and before long I am headed to the University of Maryland Medical Center. I am over-anxious and can’t stop talking. They read my blood pressure and I am shocked by how high it is. “That’s not my normal blood pressure,” I almost shout. They reassure me that everything is okay and that my blood pressure spike is a normal reaction to the pain that I am experiencing. I still can’t stop talking. I ask them what it’s like to treat a gunshot wound and they tell me. I ask them about car crashes, stabbings, gun battles and asthma. They take my questions in stride as they drive me matter of factly to the hospital. When we arrive they wheel me to the emergency room and stay with me for a while. Our talk turns to bikes, bike trails and bike shops. I am calmer now and say goodbye without ever learning their names.

A wonderful nurse practitioner takes care of me. An hour later she counts aloud the sixteen stitches that she has used to sew my left eyebrow and lid back together.  Her name is Jodi and she asks me about what happened and how I got help. And I tell her what you are reading now.

When I get home I notice that the face of my Garmin watch is scratched and cracked. I have used this watch to help with training and although it is pretty beat up I don’t plan on replacing it. Instead, if all goes well, I will be wearing it when I cross the finish line on July 27th. And when I turn it off after the race I will remember and give thanks to my friends Dave, Bob and PJ who were with me when I needed them yesterday.

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And the next time you see Medic 4 on the streets of Baltimore be sure to give them a wave and a smile for me.

At 7:45 AM on Tuesday, September 3, 1985, I walked into the Pentagon and began my active duty military service. Over the next four years I would serve as a lawyer on the Secretary of the Army’s legal staff. During my time there I had the privilege of working with young lawyers who would go on to have amazing legal careers. After leaving the Army they would fill senior positions in Democratic and Republican administrations, manage Presidential campaigns, serve as Supreme Court clerks, and prosecute mass murderers. Some would sue tobacco companies while others defended them.

We all belonged to the Pentagon Officer’s Athletic Club, better known as the POAC, and would spend many lunch hours running together. We would start on the north side of the Pentagon, run northwest along the Potomac, cross the Memorial Bridge, circle Lincoln’s memorial and head back. On really nice days we would extend the run and circle the reflecting pool.

Many of my friends trained for and completed marathons but I did not. Until today, that is, when five hours and eighteen minutes after I passed over the starting line I finished the Washington, D.C. Rock and Roll USA Marathon.

The race started at 14th and Constitution and as I arrived the first song that greeted me was “I Can See for Miles” by The Who. This, coupled with a last minute text of encouragement from a friend, reassured me as I waited for the race to begin while watching the sun rise over the Capitol dome.

Washington is beautiful this morning. It is chilly when the race starts but I am covered by the wool sweater that has kept me warm over the last few years at early morning swim practices and on the shores of many open water swims. Today I leave it at the start line where it will be collected by the organizers, given to a nearby homeless shelter and put to a better use.

Most of the runners here today have signed up for the Half-Marathon and both races share the same course for the first 13 miles. We begin heading west on Constitution, then behind the Lincoln Memorial and run over and back across the Memorial Bridge before taking Rock Creek Parkway to the steep hill leading to Calvert Street. From there it is mostly downhill as we head east then south then east again towards RFK Stadium.

At the 13 mile split I watch as thousands of runners turn left towards the finish. I turn to the right and head west. The streets are nearly empty now as we pass behind the Supreme Court, dodge a few early morning tourists leaving the Capitol and run downhill towards the White House. We turn south at 9th Street and take a tunnel under the Smithsonian Castle before circling L’Enfant Plaza. From here we run along the Potomac and around the bend to the Anacostia. We pass the Nationals’ stadium and cross the Frederick Douglass Bridge into Maryland. We head northeast for six miles then cross the East Capital Street bridge to the finish line.

After finishing the race I return to Union Station to catch the MARC train home to Baltimore, repeating a trip I made nearly 1,000 times before completing my military service at 5:45 PM on Friday, September 1, 1989.

I am early and treat myself to a Martini at the bar in the center of the main hall. Sipping it I remember two other lawyers I served with who, twelve years and ten days after I left the Pentagon, were still there when American Airlines Fight 77 was crashed into it. One would die in a conference room obliterated that morning. The other, working just down the hall, would survive, his life forever changed by what he experienced that day.

I finish my drink and board the train home happy, but also a bit sad, that I have returned to Washington today.

January Hymn

January 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

Continue Reading…

Change in my pocket

December 22, 2013 — 2 Comments

Wanting to add a little mileage to today’s run, I extend the boundaries of my normal route. I run up Overhill and down Northway past the million dollar homes adorned with wreaths and red bows. I turn left and pass Sherwood Gardens, just as lovely in the winter as it is when it is full of tulips in April. Turning right I continue to the edge of Guilford and into Waverly, the much poorer neighborhood just beyond the stone walls and fences that separate it from its wealthy neighbors to the west.


I run south on York and it starts to rain. I pass people waiting for the 8 bus, huddled with coats but no umbrellas on their way home or to church or work. The houses here that are not boarded up vacants are run down and in disrepair. I turn at 33rd and head back towards prosperity. I pass Johns Hopkins and the expensive high rise condominiums that overlook downtown.


Running north I reach the intersection of Roland and Cold Spring. It is raining harder now. A figure stands in the median strip with a cup and a cardboard sign that I can’t read from my side of the street. Five cars pass him by, but one stops. As I get closer I notice that he is an old white man with a dirty white beard. He is thin and his coat is brown, dirty and wet.


I continue north and pass Baltimore’s most desireable private schools before turning south. It occurs to me that if the bearded man had been wearing a Santa costume and ringing a bell next to a kettle, everyone would have stopped and contributed. Yet when confronted with a real person in real poverty only a small fraction of my neighbors were willing to part with even a few coins.

And I am no different. Just two days ago, while on my way to court, I passed another person in need. “Spare some change?” he asked, crumpled on the ground and leaning against the corner of the building. “Sorry, don’t have any” which, while true, was not the real reason I wasn’t going to give him anything. “Merry Christmas” he said sincerely as we walked by without saying anything in reply.

Today I wonder how many others passed that poor man on Friday and offered excuses but no change. I also regret that I was not more like the driver who stopped instead of the five who ignored the man with the white beard on the corner of Roland and Cold Spring.

On my second lap he was no longer at the intersection. Even if I had change to offer, it would have been too late to help. I turn for home having made my New Year’s resolution ten days early. From now on I will always carry change in my pocket and be the one who stops.

On Wednesday and Friday mornings the pool opens shortly after five and swim practice starts at six. Normally there are four or five of us and we take two lanes, swimming counterclockwise as we complete a workout printed in black marker on a white board.

During a typical workout I will approach the walls at the ends of the pool one hundred and sixty times, check my position with respect to the cross on the wall and the “T” on the pool bottom, flip and start back the other way. During each lap I watch the other swimmers in our group, trying to keep close to the person in front of me and far enough ahead of the one behind me. I’m constantly watching where I am and where I’m going.

On some mornings, if I get to practice early, I watch Brad Snyder finish his workout in the lane that I will use starting at six. Brad swims with sleeves on his arms that protect him when he rubs up against the lane lines. His strokes are perfect and well-measured. I watch and count. He takes seventeen strokes each length, then extends his right hand tentatively until it touches the wall. He glides and bends his arm until his forearm comes into full contact, then turns and starts back the other way for another seventeen strokes. His brother Russell swims in the next lane and checks on Brad’s progress from time to time.

When they finish, Russell gets out first and stands over Brad’s lane. Brad uses two arms to press himself out of the lane and to the deck, then extends his right arm to where he knows Russell will be. Russell places the outstretched arm in the crook of his left arm and slowly guides his blind brother from the edge.

I sit quietly and never say a word as I watch, with both eyes open, Baltimore’s greatest swimmer head to the locker room arm in arm with his brother.

Day Runner

December 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Reading through the Athlete’s Guide to the 70 mile triathlon I recently completed, I was drawn to the admonition that “Triathlon is an individual event.” I found this a little ironic given that there were nearly a thousand athletes signed up for the event which would begin with hundreds of us thrashing through a tiny swim course at the same time. Once I crossed the finish line, though, I appreciated just how true those words were.

In all my previous long distance swim events I was one of a group of friends who trained, competed and celebrated together. This one was different because I came to the triathlon alone that day and, while waiting for the swim to start, regretted it deeply. I was nervous, a bit scared and needed a friend to talk to and keep me from worrying about what lay before me. Unfortunately, despite being in a crowd of hundreds, I was alone.

Then, as I walked slowly to the water’s edge, the person behind me asked why I had chosen not to wear a wetsuit. When I started to answer he interrupted me. “Dave,” he asked after hearing my voice, by which time I realized that the question had been posed by an old friend who had been walking behind me the whole time.

Glenn and I worked together in the mid-90s, but had not stayed in touch after I left to start my own firm. After recognizing each other we laughed a bit and then spent the next ten minutes reminiscing about the times we used to run together during our lunch hour. Our conversation put me at ease and I felt relaxed and confident by the time we reached the water’s edge, wished each other good luck and started the swim.

The swim was crowded with people all around me at all times. No matter how many swimmers I passed, others remained in front of me. During the bike ride it also seemed that there were always other racers close by. Some were ahead of me who I caught and passed and others seemed to fly by me effortlessly never to be seen again. There were still others on the horizon who I would never catch but with whom I would keep pace throughout the 57 mile ride.

The run was different. By this time we were all exhausted and struggling to finish. We were all in the same battle, but were each fighting it alone.

I didn’t see Glenn again until he crossed the finish line a few minutes behind me. We congratulated each other and made plans to run together again. And last week we did just that.

Together with another old friend, we started at my office and ran through the Inner Harbor past the carousel that Abby loved to ride when she was younger. We continued jogging around the harbor and behind the Domino Sugars factory before making our way back.

Our run together brought back fond memories of the times over the years when I have had the opportunity to run with friends, first while stationed at the Pentagon and then when Glenn and I worked together. And while I look forward to running with Glenn again, the reality is that over the next several months more often than not I will run this course alone.
And that’s the way it should be.

Night Rider

November 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

On October 1st, I moved into a new office in the heart of downtown Baltimore and stopped driving my car to work. Sometimes I take the bus or catch a ride with Kathy, but most days I ride my bike.

With the shorter days much of my riding is done when it is dark outside. When I swim in the evening, my trip home starts at 9:00 PM.

Leaving downtown, I bike up Charles Street past the Washington Monument. At Mount Royal the traffic lights rise to a hillcrest at 28th Street and look like runway lights inviting a takeoff.

At Penn Station I catch and pass the number 11 bus but it passes me at North Avenue. A large line of riders waits at 25th Street and I beat the light while the bus loads. It does not catch me again this night.

At 29th, I cut behind the Johns Hopkins campus and wave to the security guards I pass on San Martin Drive. Tonight I surprise two deer who have strayed onto the campus from nearby Wyman Park.

I arrive home forty-two minutes after leaving swim practice and turn off the front porch light.

Running on empty . . .

October 7, 2013 — 3 Comments

On Sunday I started and finished my first triathlon at Centennial Park in Ellicott City.

The swim was wonderful. It was slightly less than a mile in distance and the water was warm. The 56 mile bike ride that came next went better than I had expected. I had trained on the course several times over the summer and knew it well. I got off the bike three and one half hours after I started the swim and all that was left was a 13.1 mile run.

By this time I was exhausted. My back was sore and it was way too hot to be jogging through hilly Ellicott City. I would spend almost as much time as it had taken to complete the bike course to finish the run.

As I slowly jogged, mile after mile, I found myself thinking back to the first time I had to run a race against a clock. It was during the summer of 1979 when, rather than return to lifeguarding, I volunteered to attend two weeks of training with the 101st Infantry Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

On the first day we were organized into a Company composed of two Platoons and for some unknown reason I was made a Platoon leader. Three other ROTC cadets from Dillard University were also given leadership positions. Parnell and John were two of my squad leaders and Dave, a senior at Dillard, was made Company commander. The four of us were put in charge of front line infantry troops serving with the 101st and none of us knew what we were doing.

Early on the Drill Instructors punished our mistakes by making the four of us do push ups. When our performance didn’t improve, they made everyone under our command join us, which only made our jobs harder as we quickly lost the confidence of the soldiers we were supposed to lead through formations and march to training.

I was overwhelmed and in way over my head. I thought I had signed up for a couple of weeks of rappelling out of helicopters and instead found myself being ridiculed at every turn. I remember standing in line for the pay phone, using a handful of quarters to call home to tell my dad in a shaky voice that I didn’t know what I was doing. There was nothing he could say during that call to make me feel better.

Dave caught the brunt of the Drill Instructors’ harassment but, unlike me, he never let it get to him. He knew he was doing it wrong, but rather than make excuses or feel sorry for himself he worked to get it right. Over the next week the four of us became friends. We borrowed a copy of the Army’s field manual on “Drill and Ceremony” and learned the proper way to organize a formation and to march troops. Eventually the push ups stopped and we settled into Army life.

In our free time we would play pick up basketball at a nearby enlisted-mens’ gym and John would try, without much success, to improve my jump shot. We talked about our plans for the future. They all wanted to be infantry officers. I hoped to go to law school. Parnell was already a father. I had not yet had a girlfriend.

There were silly rules that we were made to follow during the course, one of which was that only people who had passed the course could walk on the bridges over the many ditches that surrounded the training facilities. Every day we would come to a perfectly nice bridge, pass it by and instead run through a ditch or jump across a stream. And each time we did, John would proclaim that he was going to dance across the first bridge he came upon after we graduated.

The course consisted of a series of graded exercises and we needed to earn a certain number of points to pass. As the end of training approached, Dave was short on points. The last exercise was a 10 mile march in full gear that needed to be completed in less than four hours. The faster you finished, the more points you earned. In order to pass, Dave would need to finish the march in about two hours.

I had plenty of points and could have walked the ten-mile course and still graduated. Instead I learned about loyalty to friends that day and when Parnell and John declared that they were going to run the course with Dave, I decided to join them. Together the four of us ran in fatigues and combat boots, carrying rucksacks and fake M-16s made out of hard rubber. It was June, we were in Kentucky, and it was really hot. It was hard work and from time to time Dave, Parnell or I would drop back and John would encourage us to keep up so we could all dance across those bridges. I don’t remember what our time was when we finished that run, but later that day we all graduated together and John celebrated by dancing across the first bridge we passed.

I would never lead troops again during my military career, but would instead become a lawyer assigned to the Secretary of the Army’s staff. I never saw Dave, Parnell or John again after these pictures were taken and I don’t know what became of them, although I’m certain they each made fine infantry officers and served the Army well. The badge I earned that hot day in Kentucky is hung on my office wall. I cherish it along with the memory of the three cadets from Dillard who taught me the value of teamwork, friendship and loyalty on a long and hot run in June of 1979.

I eventually crossed the finish line six hours and ten minutes after I started the swim. I sat down, drank a Gatorade and wished there was a bridge nearby to dance across.

Fahrenheit 66.74

September 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s 4:35 A.M. and I am awake. The swim up the Hudson starts soon and I shower, pack, check out and head to the Grand Central taxi stand to meet up with Katie and Krista. I check the event website for the last time and confirm today’s water temperature. 66.74. I decide to leave the wetsuit in my suitcase.

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Grand Central terminal takes a break from 2 to 5:30 in the morning. Standing on 42nd street I watch the partiers from last night sit along the window fronts waiting for the doors to open, chilly in short dresses and bare feet holding high heels in their hands. The scene is made all the more confusing by the line of customers who have waited overnight to buy the latest iPhone at a nearby store.

Krista and Katie arrive and we catch a cab to the 79th Street boat basin. We are early and stop at McDonalds and Starbucks for a quick breakfast.

We make it to check in, get our caps and numbers and listen to the simple race briefing: “That way [north], that way, 10 K. Stay near the marks.” A right side breather’s dream.

We start in asssigned waves shortly after sunrise. It is colder than last year and the water is dirtier. I taste petroleum from the boat basin to the bridge. The current is kinder though, and I improve on last year’s time significantly.

We celebrate our accomplishments over lunch with an old friend from this year’s Potomac River Swim and a new friend who recently swam the English Channel. We take the A train to 42nd street and bar hop until our bus leaves.

Along the way I teach a bartender how to make a perfect Martini. Three times. It has been a very good day.

I shot the cover photo on this web page last year just before I swam in the Hudson River from 79th street to beyond the George Washington Bridge. Today I am traveling north with four friends to do it again.

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We are on the 1:45 Megabus from Baltimore to New York and will cross three rivers along the way, each of which brings back special New York memories for me.

With 150 miles to go, we cross high above the Susquehanna River at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay. I grew up on this river in a small town called Sidney in upstate New York. In junior high, after reading Huck Finn, my friend Jim and I built a small raft using discarded styrofoam packaging we found behind the Honda Motorcycle dealership that briefly did business in the village. Our plan at the time was to raft south for a few days to see how far we could travel on it. We lost the raft to a heavy rain storm and loose square knot and that adventure ended before it began.

In years to come, I would canoe many miles of the river, first in Boy Scouts and then later in annual canoe races with friends from high school.

Shortly after leaving Maryland we cross the Delaware River into New Jersey. When Abby was younger, we canoed the river along the border between New York and Pennsylvania with other classmates and their fathers. We slept in lean-tos, made spaghetti and meatballs for 16 over a camp stove in the pouring rain and visited the site of Woodstock in nearby Bethel. It was the first of several memorable canoe trips I would take with this group.

We end today’s trip crossing under the Hudson in the Lincoln Tunnel. I have not yet canoed this river but, if all goes as planned, by this time tomorrow I will have swum it twice.

Six of us made the trip last year and all but one have returned to do it again. We drove to my sister’s house in New Jersey the night before, awoke early and took a train to Penn Station. A short subway ride later we were at the start point. We registered, were given color-coded swim caps and had numbers drawn on our arms in black marker.

The conditions last year were perfect. The timing of the tides allowed us to start around 9:30 in the morning and the water was warm. By the time we entered the water the tide had shifted and was pushing us quickly north towards our destination a little over ten kilometers away. It was a wonderful day spent with wonderful friends in a wonderful place.

I expect it will be colder tomorrow, but just as nice.

My favorite bike when I was a kid was a three-speed, banana seated, Schwinn Stingray that looked something like this:

I used it and several bikes that followed to get around the small village where I grew up and the college campuses where I studied.

I bought my first road bike a little over three years ago and shortly thereafter started attending the monthly Rando Ramble rides organized by Bob Wagner. I never truly loved cycling until I started riding the Rambles. The Ramble riders have taught me how to be a self-sufficient, courteous and safe cyclist. The treks laid out by Bob have shown me Maryland at its best, from its quiet back roads to its busy bike trails. Together our group has biked to the heart of the District of Columbia, to the northern and southern shores of the Chesapeake Bay and miles beyond the Pennsylvania border. We often start these rides over coffee and bagels and, whenever possible, end them over beer and stories.

This month’s ride was a 42 mile ride into and around Baltimore ending with a picnic at Charlie’s Catonsville home. The first leg takes us to Jimmy’s Restaurant in Fells Point for a late breakfast. We get there using the bike lane along Frederick Road and the Gwynns Falls and Middle Branch Trails. From Harbor Hospital we turn north and cross the Hanover Street bridge on our way to Fort Avenue. We circle the Inner Harbor and bounce our way over cobblestones into Fells Point.

From Fells Point we cycle east and then north to an ice cream shop in Mt. Washington. After a quick tour of Canton and Patterson Park we climb north using the Jones Falls Trail and the Roland Avenue bike lane.
On the final leg of our journey we bike to the hilltops of Pimlico, then through Leakin Park and finally back to Catonsville.
When we reach Charlie’s house, Mary already has chicken cooking on the grill. We swim in the pool and enjoy some beer while dinneris being finished. It’s a beautiful evening inCatonsville and as I sip Charlie’s home-brewed Arrogant Bastard Ale at the pool’s edge I am grateful that my life’s biking journey has brought me to this fine group of friends.My only regret is that I didn’t keep that Stingray.

 

Facing a long day flying home, I wake early for a run on the beach. I repeat the route I took yesterday, enter the beach at its start, run north for thirty-three minutes and turn around. A fitness program on my phone allows me to play music while it tracks my progress and time. In a nice voice it reminds me every so often that I still cannot run a mile in under ten minutes. At this rate the 70 mile triathlon I have been training for will take nearly eight hours to complete.

The beach is nearly empty this morning. There are a few other joggers but most people I meet are here for a nice walk at the water’s edge. The tide is coming in and I am not always quick enough to get out of the way of the small waves that climb the beach. My running shoes are soon wet and heavy.

I have set the program to shuffle music and despite the randomness the songs always seem to fit what I am experiencing. As I cross under a pier a song based upon an Irish blessing starts to play in my ears.

May the wind be always at your back

And the sunshine warm upon your face.

May the rains fall soft upon your field

Until the day we meet again.

And the roof that hangs over your head

Find you shelter from the storm.

Before the devil knows you’re dead

May you be in heaven my friend.*

As if on cue I come upon an elderly woman facing the sun with her palms raised. Finishing her morning prayer, she makes the sign of the cross, turns slowly and walks away.

The next song starts and I continue jogging north.

* Devil Knows You’re Dead by Delta Spirit

 

Heading home alone

September 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

I left Abby in Obzor at 4:00 PM and drove back to Burgas. I fly home to Baltimore tomorrow.

Over the last eight days we have traveled more than 2,000 miles together from London to the Black Sea. At the start I expected that we would spend this time in long heart felt talks. We didn’t. Those talks belong to an earlier time when I was the only man in her life. I am not that person for her any longer. Instead, we spent most of our trip in quiet reflection as we watched Europe pass by our train windows. She drawing sketches and sharing her experiences with her boyfriend by email and I writing these blog entries.

In earlier trips I was depended upon to make sure everything was in place. On this trip I travel with a partner who did more than her fair share. From finding a conductor to let her on a locked train to retrieve the bag containing my passport I had left behind, to finding great restaurants and an amazing bike tour, Abby’s contributions made the trip better.

When she announced that she had obtained a grant to attend this program I was nervous. This was not like the organized school trips overseas she had taken before and I was frightened of the prospect of her traveling to Bulgaria alone. I realize now that she could have done this without me and has sacrificed some of her independence to let her worrisome father tag along to unnecessarily make sure she made it okay.

We arrived early to the pick up point and waited in a cafe next door. She said goodbye to me there and walked the remaining fifty meters alone. She left soon thereafter already deep in conversation with the people she had just met.

She did not look back.

During our brief layover in Sofia we took the Sofia Bike Tour and spent an amazing morning biking in Sofia with our tour guide Lucy.

We rented bikes from Sofia Bike and met Lucy at the front of the National Theater at 10:00 AM. She rolled up on a Drag mountain bike and for the next three hours led us around the center of Sofia and through its parks.

At the start she advised us that Sofia was not “bike tolerant.” She wasn’t kidding. Bikes were everywhere when we were in London and Paris but there is no real bike infrastructure here. There is a single bike trail in one of the parks that was originally built as a private exercise area for a senior communist official. The trail is still in good shape and is now open to the public but doesn’t appear to get much use.

Bikes don’t share roads here. Most riding takes place on sidewalks and using crosswalks. No helmets are worn, only sun glasses. There are formal walking trails in the parks but we do not use many of them. Instead Lucy’s tour takes us down smaller and narrower paths. We bike across a four lane high-speed boulevard and even down a ramp to an underground mall, a first for me.

At the stops along the way Lucy tells us the history of her country, its current struggles and the reason for ongoing protests in front of the Parliament. It was a wonderfully informative ride and one of the best tours of a city I have ever taken.

As well as being a strong cyclist and enthusiastic tour guide, Lucy is a kindergarten teacher who works with special needs kids. She has studied English since the third grade, is extremely proficient, and wants to visit the U.S. someday. I hope it happens soon and that when it does she will include a visit to Baltimore so I can return the favor and show her my city by bike.

Thanks again Lucy.

The last train

September 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

From The Man in Seat 61. . .How to travel by train from London to Sofia and Bulgaria

Day 4, travel from Bucharest to Sofia by daytime train, leaving Bucharest Nord at 12:30 and arriving Veliko Tarnovo at 19:16 and Sofia central station at 22:00. . . .There is no catering as this is just one Romanian Railways through carriage with 2nd class seating only in 6-seater compartments, so bring your own supplies of food, water, and beer or wine. However, it’s a scenic and interesting trip, so enjoy the ride. Expect an arrival an hour or so late.

The train to Sofia is about as far away as you can get from the Eurostar we took out of London just a few days ago. There is no air conditioning so we move from our assigned seats to a cabin with a window that can open. There are few other passengers and we have the cabin to ourselves. We will spend 10 hours on this train to travel 400 kilometers (roughly 250 miles) on tickets that cost a total of $41.00. A 16 mile cab ride from our house in Baltimore to the airport costs more.

The northern part of Bulgaria is beautiful. There are enormous fields of farmland under cultivation, probaly stretching hundreds of square miles. Soon the geography changes and we are riding above the Yantra River valley. We descend and follow it into Veliko Tarnova. As the sun begins to set we pass by and then under amazing rock formations that rise on both sides of the tracks.

It is nearly 10:00 PM and our train trip is just about over. It has gone according to plan and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

As we pull into Sofia, I recall that when I was in high school I thought I would spend a summer travelling through Europe on a Eurail Pass after finishing college. Law school and the Army got in the way and it never happened. Until now.

Sometimes in life you are given a second chance. When you are you should take it.